The race to Mars

Will the red planet be our saving grace?

Scientists have been on the hunt for exoplanets and extraterrestrial life since the 1890s when Nikola Tesla suggested that electrical signals could be used to communicate with beings on Mars. Historically, the search for habitable planets has been curiosity-oriented research, with scientists mainly focusing on the understanding of the universe. However, in recent decades, the search has shifted to searching for habitable planets that could be an alternative home for humans given the rapidly increased threat of climate change

The top contender planet for life away from Earth is Mars (Venus might soon be contending for this spot). The main reasons why Mars is a favourable planet for hosting humans include: the evidence of water extracts from the soil, the available mineral resources, it has a gravitational pull sufficient for humans to adapt,  and it’s positioning from the sun results in bearable temperatures. There have been many missions designed to explore the red planet. These missions can be categorised into four groups: flybys, orbiters, landers and rovers.

Flyby missions main aims were to capture photographs of Mars in close proximity, the flyby spacecrafts were not designed to enter Mars’ orbit but just to pass in the vicinity of the planet. The first successful launch was of the NASA’s Mariner 4 spacecraft which collected the first planet images from space; it also mapped 1% of Mars. The first successful orbiter mission was launched in 1971 by the Soviet Union. The Mars 2 spacecraft was only in orbit for a few months but successfully measured the surface temperature and the atmospheric composition of the planet. Vikings 1 and 2 were the first spacecrafts to land on Mars successfully; the lander missions perform all experiments at a single location. Besides taking photographs and collecting other science data on the Martian surface, the two landers conducted three biology experiments designed to look for possible signs of life; from these experiments, scientists concluded that the dryness and oxidising nature of the soil did not permit the formation of living organisms on the Martian soil. 

The most famous of the missions, of course, are the rovers. Rovers are robots that are designed to travel across the planet upon arrival. Sojourner, the first rover to land on Mars, took 550 images and performed more than 15 chemical analyses of rocks and soil and extensive data on winds and other weather factors. Findings from the investigations carried out by scientific instruments on both the lander and the rover suggest that Mars was at one time in its past warm and wet, with water existing in its liquid state and a thicker atmosphere. Many other rovers have landed on Mars, including the infamous Curiosity; these missions have enabled scientist to have a broad understanding of the climate and geological structures of the planet. These findings have resulted in missions that seek to send humans to Mars with the hope of having humans settlements. The most famous of these missions’ are the Mars One (which dismally failed) and Space X. However, my personal favourite is the Proudly Human project, founded by UKZN alumni Adriana Marais. Although embarking on an ambitious mission of off-world settlements,  Proudly Human also seeks to uplift youth that is already living in extreme conditions.

As a scientist, I’m pro any explorative research that advances our understanding of the universe, however, when it comes to the colonisation of Mars, I tend to have a different view. I believe that the plan of escaping Earth will not work in the long run, not because of the dull and monotonic scenery of planet Mars, but because the problem was never the planet but humans. It is humans that have, on numerous occasions, chosen greed over humanity. Hence, whatever planet we are headed to would eventually be doomed for destructions unless our actions change.

I am excited whenever I see young climate activists boldly speak out on how government and industries should adopt environmentally friendly policies. Individual behaviour is what will collectively change the state of this planet; then there will no longer be a need to seek refuge on other planets. In the famous words of the late king of pop, ‘I’m looking at the man in the mirror, I’m asking him to change his ways’. Our individual deeds, no matter how insignificant they may seem, will save our beautiful mother Earth.

The uncomfortable truth about finances and academia

Can an average South African afford an academic career?

Every time Stats SA releases the country’s economic statistics, it is always a harsh reminder of how bad and unequal our economy is. A shocking statistic found by the Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice & Dignity Group shows that 55.5% of our population lives below the upper-bound poverty line, which is currently at R1,227 per person per month. The discussions sparked by the 2020 first-quarter stats made me reflect on how finances are one of the leading systematic barriers to entry in the academic field.

I have had a first-hand experience of how finances could lead to choosing a different career path, even when one is a passionate academic.

In the final year of my MSc, I was faced with a financial dilemma; my mother was unemployed and desperately needed to purchase a bigger house that could accommodate our family. Being the eldest daughter, I really wanted to help her. Yes, I had a scholarship, but banks would never consider giving me a housing bond. As passionate as I was about science, my upbringing propelled me to assist my mother. My job applications were successful, and hence I was employed. This would have been the end of my academic career; fortunately, my mother secured a job, which paid enough for her to be able to buy a house. As a result, I was able to resign and continue with my studies. Unfortunately, most people never make it back to academia. 

I was also fortunate to receive a scholarship for my PhD studies, meaning that I would be able to assist at home financially. However, some of my colleagues are self-funded; this is another harsh finance reality. Most of these colleagues are at an age where families expect them to contribute financially, or they have families to look after. Ultimately, they have to rely on the income from tutoring, teaching and lab assistances. The time consumed on preparation and teaching compromises the quality of their research while the privileged students are able to solely focus on their research.

A major highlight from the Black lives matter movement conversations is how the prevalent inequalities are deeply rooted in the systems. The Department of Science and Innovation’s White Paper lists various strategies on how the department plans to transform the field of science, but will their approaches be successful? The National Research Foundation (NRF) has played a significant role in diversifying the post-graduate space; currently, the bulk of their scholarships are received by learners coming from previously disadvantaged backgrounds. But does their funding model suit our economic climate?

The truth for this generation is that most students from disadvantaged backgrounds are the first to attend university. Families sacrifice a lot with the hope that an educated child is destined to improve their living conditions. This means that as soon as the student graduates, there is a financial expectation. Many label this as ‘black tax’ but I believe that the spirit of ubuntu that is engraved in our upbringing drives us to lift others as we rise. Unfortunately, current funding models do not cater for such students.

My ideal funding model would be one where the student signs an ‘employment’ contract which is recognised by South African financial institutions. The universities could also offer tutoring or lab assistance posts with an extended timeframe; not the usual annual contracts. This would allow post-graduate students to carry out similar responsibilities as peers in work environments. The major game-changer, of course, would be if financial institutions realistically catered for all the different economy populations. Countries like Colombia have been leading in the global financial inclusion rankings as their finance sector is able to equally cater for people at various income levels. A study showed that these were the main drivers for financial inclusion:  the government developed financial inclusion indicators and reports, the innovative establishment of bank access points, and custom-made products aimed at different segments of the population with a special focus on low-income individuals.

Transformation in the academic sphere is non-negotiable. However, it has to be more than just diversifying on the surface. True transformation is one that will change the current systems that are major barriers to entry. These changes would enable students to make career decisions that are based on passion and not biased by financial circumstances.